Improvisational comedy is fast becoming the norm. Whether it’s This is the End, Bad Neighbours or Anchorman 2, the construction is the same: narrative skeleton to keep the audience interested interspersed with some carefully-honed gags and a lot of loose improvisation, edited into something tighter. I’m not complaining, mind; I love the shooting-shit-with-your-mates vibe of good improv. But these films all strip something natural out of improvisation, reducing it to something …neat.
That’s not the case with Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, a comedy-slash-drama built on a foundation of improv. Like Swanberg’s last film, Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas splits the difference between relaxed jesting – mostly from Jude Swanberg, Joe’s two year-old son (possibly the best actor in an impressive cast) – and serious contemplation of the issues of white folks in their early thirties. Said issues revolve around parenthood – Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) struggles with her artistic aspirations and motherhood – and simply attaining adulthood in the first place, with Kelly’s sister-in-law Jenny (Anna Kendrick) struggling to move past arrested adolescence.
It’s never quite as insightful or moving as Drinking Buddies, but it’s a brisk, pleasant way to spend an hour-and-a-half, largely thanks to the way Swanberg uses improvisation for verisimilitude rather than pun-one-upmanship.